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Bistrica Hydropower Plant Project Faces Uncertainty, Encountering Challenges Despite Its Vital Significance

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There are more questions than answers regarding the prolonged anticipation of the construction project of the Bistrica Hydropower Plant, despite it being considered an important strategic project for the country and the economy.

The significance of Bistrica was recently emphasized by the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, during the presentation of the “Leap into the Future – Serbia 2027” program, stating that without it, the country would not have electricity. However, he did not explain why, over the past ten years, during which the project has been repeatedly announced, the Uvac Hydropower Plant has not been built.

Indeed, back in 2013, the Minister of Energy, Zorana Mihajlović, announced that an agreement for the construction of the reversible hydropower plant had been signed with Canada. Subsequently, the Chinese also became involved, and the latest information from Minister Dubravka Đedović Handanović is that negotiations on financing are underway with Japan. Although these are only estimates, the construction cost has reportedly increased by up to 100% over these ten years.

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On the other hand, Vučić portrays Bistrica as a salvation that has been formally and bureaucratically complicated.

“Bistrica is crucial for us; if we don’t build it, we won’t have electricity. Bistrica is the one that has to balance our green renewable energy. It will be much easier for us, and we are doing this with Americans, Russians, Chinese, and everyone else—investing in solar, investing in wind. All of these efforts are in vain without batteries that Bistrica will provide. We are now finishing the Kostolac B3 thermal power plant, which will be the first energy facility in 40 years; we will open it in a month or two. We have significant projects for the construction of self-balancing solar power plants. We will invest in energy more than ever,” stated Vučić at that time.

Commenting on President Vučić’s statement that the country will not have electricity without the Bistrica hydropower plant, experts at the Euronews center agree that this is a crucial issue for the future. However, they point out that politics has been the main obstacle to the project’s realization. They acknowledge that the issue of the green agenda is important for the entire world, including Serbia, and do not dispute that the Bistrica issue emerges as a priority.

Professor Aleksandar Gajić from the Academy of Engineering Sciences notes that discussions about this project have been ongoing for 40 years, but much has not been concretely realized. Jelica Putniković, the editor of the Energija Balkana portal, warns that if Serbia does not create the necessary capacity for the hydropower plant, someone else might take that place.

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Why is Bistrica considered a salvation?

Putniković says that the issue of Bistrica has been present for a very long time, spanning multiple generations. She adds that there has been more talk about it than actual progress, despite the insistence that it is an important project.

Discussions about Bistrica date back to the time of the former Yugoslavia when capacities for electricity production, such as Đerdap 1 and Đerdap 2, were being built. During that period, Serbia was a significant exporter, but there were hindrances afterward. Still, Serbia managed to return to being an exporter. However, Bistrica has been somewhat timidly mentioned throughout this time. In recent years, perhaps a bit more actively, specifically since 2013, there were discussions suggesting that Bistrica could be built without any loans, using its own funds. At that time, the estimate was around 600 million euros, but current estimates range from one billion to 1.2 billion euros – she says.

Professor Gajić also believes that there is more talk about Bistrica than actual progress. When asked what has been hindering this project all along, he points to a lack of political will.

Political will is crucial. Canadians were rejected because of it. End of the story. I truly believe that the project has the potential and resources to build the reversible Bistrica hydropower plant with some credit. Everything was silent until recently. We already have wind farms, whose production is extremely unstable and unpredictable. Something is needed to smooth out that production, and the best and most efficient means are reversible hydropower plants. One capacity for balancing is necessary. Bistrica is salvation – Gajić believes.

In response to the observation that climate change has become more unpredictable and frequent, and considering research and experiences related to drought periods, the professor explains why Bistrica is crucial. He states that its operation is reliable, making it essential.

“I’m not against wind farms and solar power plants, and that is the future. It’s up to God. For example, a country like Germany, which pushed wind farms too much, had excess production according to current European directives. The Germans were selling it at a negative price. The Italian brothers were getting energy and a little extra euros. Hydropower plants are the ones that pump water when we have excess energy at night, and in the opposite direction, water from the upper lake returns, turning the turbine. It operates differently, and that is also important,” said Gajić.

Is there a more serious discussion starting about Bistrica?

Putniković adds that only this year has there been a more serious discussion about Bistrica. She emphasizes that, in her opinion, this issue should remain within the country itself, without the involvement of foreign investors.

There was a period when EPS did not have to produce electricity. They could only buy and sell it. It’s good that such a concept was abandoned. It’s good that both Bistrica and wind parks are mentioned, along with a gigawatt of new solar capacities that will be self-sustainable. I think it’s a good thing that it is said to be part of the future EPS. Foreign investors are mentioned, but I believe that not only should EPS not be privatized, but foreign partners should not be involved in these projects as co-owners. Through these crises, we have shown that our people who manage the energy system can adapt and protect the interests of both the state and EPS. I think any foreigner becoming part of Bistrica would only think about profit – states Putniković.

As she adds, it is possible to utilize hydropower plants as well as other ecological factors while respecting rules related to environmental protection.

Certainly, there should be a focus on environmental protection, ensuring that it does not endanger the plant and animal life and that it does not threaten the natural habitat of everything in the surrounding area of that watercourse. I was against those mini hydropower plants where they put streams and rivers into pipes; they literally left the beds of those rivers dry and practically destroyed the river. I doubt that rivers will completely dry up in 20-30 years so that there won’t be any water. These rivers create a whole network of interconnected flows. It means that the watersheds are not mixed to preserve the natural balance, but it manages the water not only for electricity production but also to ensure that agriculture has water for irrigation in the future – she said.

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